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Diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago, Lisa Flynn is striving to keep fate in her favor, one day at a time

One year after being diagnosed with terminal Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, Lisa Flynn is striving to enjoy every single day to the fullest. She's adapted a new diet, meditation and fitness routine to look and feel her best, and she's going about her days with an upbeat attitude and a strong focus on all the things she's grateful for. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)1 / 3
Lisa's new diet and fitness routine has helped her lose 34 pounds in the past year, and she says she's got a few more to go. But it's not so much about the weight as the hope for a longer, healthier life: “I feel like, at this point, I need to do whatever I can to give me as much time here as I can," she said. 2 / 3
Lisa's been working part-time at the front desk of the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center since August. She resigned from her previous full-time job as a special education teacher at Detroit Lakes High School after being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, so she could focus on her health. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)3 / 3

"Nobody can believe I have what I have."

People who've just met Lisa Flynn, or who talk to her only in passing, would never in a million years guess that the radiant woman in front of them has a terminal illness.

With her utterly cheerful personality, bright eyes and full head of hair, Flynn doesn't look or behave like people usually expect someone with an advanced, incurable type of cancer to look or behave.

When people find out that she has Stage IV metastatic breast cancer, they're always shocked, Flynn says — and she gets it.

"I don't think I look like a cancer patient," she said during a recent interview. "I don't think I have the attitude of a cancer patient."

The 53-year-old Detroit Lakes woman is an inspiration to all who know her, maintaining a positive outlook in the face of a frightening prognosis: while Flynn says her doctor won't give her an estimated timespan, the average five-year survival rate for someone with her type of cancer is just 22 percent; median survival is three years.

Modern treatments are continually improving, however, and survival rates vary greatly depending on age, overall health, attitude and other factors. Some women live 10 years or longer after being diagnosed, and Flynn believes she could be one of them.

"I have to have hope that it'll be longer," she says.

She's doing everything she can to put fate in her favor. Since her diagnosis last winter, Flynn has started a new diet, exercise and meditation routine to help her look and feel her best. She's determined to buy herself as much time as possible, and to enjoy each day she has to the absolute fullest.

"Someone told me recently that people will get so desperate that they'll try anything," she says. "I wouldn't say I'm desperate, but I certainly want to give myself an advantage, give me an edge toward this thing not progressing... I feel like, at this point, I need to do whatever I can to give me as much time here as I can."

Flynn has embraced a new, healthier lifestyle not only for her own good, she said, but also for the sake of her loved ones — especially her two daughters, Caroline, a college student, and Cate, a high school junior.

"I need to be here for my kids as long as I can," she says. "For me, that's motivation."

A 1983 Detroit Lakes High School graduate, Flynn moved back to town in the summer of 2016 after being away for more than 30 years. She came back to help her parents around their Frazee farm, but as it turned out, she says, "really, they're helping me."

Flynn already had a history with cancer when she returned to Detroit Lakes, but she thought the worst was behind her. She was diagnosed in 2014 with Stage III breast cancer, and underwent radiation, "hardcore chemo" and a mastectomy to treat it, she recalls.

It took a huge physical and emotional toll on her: "I looked exactly like a cancer patient. I had no hair. I was in a very dark place... I was just a hot mess."

She pushed through it, though, and once back home, started building a new life for herself. She got a job as a special education teacher at Detroit Lakes High School and also kept busy around the family farm. She led gardening workshops, and for awhile co-authored a blog called The Gardening Gals.

But then, in December of 2017, she got terrible news. Intense pain on the right side of her body led to an x-ray, and that x-ray revealed the worst: her cancer had metastasized, or traveled, creating new tumors in other parts of her body. It's a phenomenon that happens to 20 to 30 percent of people who've had earlier stages of breast cancer.

Flynn learned that she had multiple tumors in her brain, skull, ribs and other areas. The pain in her side was being caused by a four-inch tumor that was eating away at one of her ribs. It was at that point, she says, that she decided, "I need to start making some changes in my life."

To focus more attention on her health, Flynn resigned from her position at the school, slowed down her gardening activities, and eventually picked up a part-time gig as a receptionist at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center, where she still works. Her first goal was to de-stress, she says, "because that does affect your ability to heal and your mental wellbeing."

Flynn had never followed any specific diet or exercise routine before, but soon after her diagnosis, she began paying more attention to what she was putting into her body. She started eating more plant-based foods, and less meat and sugar.

She also started working out regularly at the community center, both on her own and with a personal trainer. She now works out six days a week, focusing on cardio (using the treadmill, elliptical, etc.) as well as strength training.

Gen Anagnost, Flynn's trainer, says Flynn's workouts are based on Flynn's goals. Plans occasionally need to be altered due to her treatment schedule or how she's feeling, but overall Flynn has the "drive and motivation" to keep getting stronger.

"She is so incredibly strong," Anagnost adds of Flynn. "She is a hard worker. Once she sets her mind to something, she goes at it and she continues to work... She has cancer, but she doesn't let it define her. She fights against it, and she is controlling her body as much as she can. She's such an inspiration and a motivator for me."

Flynn has lost 34 pounds since last February, and says that while weight loss isn't her primary goal, she "still has a few more to go."

"It's becoming a part of my life," she says of her new routine. "There's new, healthy habits developing."

She believes it's making a big difference in how she's feeling, keeping her "in a much better place" than she was after her first cancer diagnosis in 2014. In addition to the weight loss, her blood pressure has gone down and the results of her bloodwork have improved.

"After the first time, I just made so many excuses for myself," she says. "At some point, I had to stop with the excuses. I had to make some decisions."

Daily meditation and prayer are major factors in Flynn's overall wellness now, too. She sees a reiki practitioner for energy healing, and keeps a gratitude journal that she believes is crucial to her mental health: "Gratitude and anger can't live in the same place," she explains.

Despite fatigue, bone pain, cramping, restless leg syndrome and other symptoms and side effects of her illness and treatments, Flynn stays largely positive. There have been nights she's cried herself to sleep, she admits, but she finds comfort in her family, friends and work community — "the best support system ever." She's also learned to "live in the moment" and is picking away at items on her bucket list, which are all about "moments and people; making memories."

While she watches other people try to plan out their lives for the next 5 to 10 years or more, Flynn says she's concentrating on the here and now: "I might not have 5 to 10 years left, so I'm just trying to focus on the things that I'm happy for and grateful for."

Flynn is undergoing immunotherapy treatments at Roger Maris Cancer Center every three weeks and gets radiation therapy when she's in pain. She takes a daily chemotherapy pill at home, and gets scans taken every three months.

It's always a possibility that her current treatment plan will stop working and she'll need to start something different. And if that happens, there's always the fear that there won't be anything else different to try.

Her last scans on Dec. 7, though, brought some relief: one year after Flynn's diagnosis, everything appears to be stable. She calls it "the best Christmas present ever."

"In the world of terminal cancer, 'stable' is a really good thing," she says. "You never know. My next set of scans are in three months and could show that it's spread to other places. So I'm thankful this year for the word 'stable.'"

While Flynn is living one day at a time, she does have a few hopes and plans for the immediate future. She intends to continue working at the community center for as long as she can, calling it a positive environment and "a great place to be." She would also like to be a guest speaker at some local cancer support group meetings, to try and bring a little hope to others.

At the end of the day, she says, her illness "is what it is."

"Life can throw you a curveball, and it's just how to react to it. My cancer is my cancer and my treatment is my treatment. I don't have a lot of choice over that, but I can choose how I respond to my situation," she says. "This is my journey."

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

(218) 844-1452